In the mid-’60s, The Fillmore Auditorium and the Family Dog’s Avalon Ballroom became ground zero for the psychedelic rock revolution. Bill Graham began booking shows at the Fillmore with local, soon-to-be legendary bands, like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Santana.
To promote the shows, Graham, and the Family Dog’s Chet Helms, hired local artists to make posters that incorporated the vibrant psychedelic imagery of the time. The posters were given away free and appeared in the windows of counterculture bookstores, record shops and other businesses.
The posters slowly became treasured by collectors and increased in value dramatically. Berkeley’s Dennis King was one of the people who noticed this trend. He began collecting posters and comic books during his teenage years and started selling them at the Alameda Flea Market in 1971. Over the years, his buying and selling of posters became a full-time job. Today, he owns the D. King Gallery on Fulton Street in Berkeley. The shop sells posters, baseball cards and comic books, both underground and mainstream.
“I grew up during the rock ’n’ roll era of the ’50s and ’60s, listening to Top 40 radio,” King said. “I had a transistor radio with one earplug in 1959. I played classical guitar, and even went to see Segovia. But when the folk movement came along, I got interested in fingerpicking. I saw The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters and Peter, Paul & Mary. Then, The Beatles changed everything.
“Walking down Telegraph Avenue one day, I saw the Zig Zag Man poster for Big Brother,” King said. “I thought, ‘That takes balls!’ and started looking into the posters. I was too young to get into the Fillmore or Avalon, so I went to the free concerts at Provo Park in Berkeley and The Panhandle in San Francisco. I saw Country Joe and the Fish, The Grateful Dead and all the bands.”
King bought a few posters when he had extra money. “Moe’s sold them in the basement of their bookstore on Telegraph,” he recalled. “The Avenue was a counter-culture hub, like the Haight in San Francisco, but more political, international and intellectual.
“I’d collected comic books since I was a kid,” he continued. “One day, my girlfriend said she was going to the Alameda Flea Market to raise some money. She asked me to come along and sell some of my comics. Someone bought the whole box. I realized I could make money selling comics. About a year later, I ran into Ron Greco, from the band Crime, selling rock posters at the flea market. I bought them all, pulled out the ones I wanted and sold the rest.
“By that time, I was going to UC Berkeley, studying for a math degree. I had a cheap apartment, $95 a month. I was making enough to get by, eating ramen and eggs. I graduated and became a teacher for a few months, but the bureaucracy was too much,” he remembered. “Since I was starting to make good money selling posters and comics, I quit. A few years later, I was at the San Diego Comic Convention. A friend of mine told me he’d sold 200 bucks worth of sports cards out of a binder he had. I said, ‘Tell me all about it.’ That got me into selling baseball cards.”
King made a shirt to wear to the flea market that said, I buy Baseball cards. “I was wearing it when I went into a bookstore in Berkeley. The owner asked if I was serious. When I said yes, he dug out some cards from the 1920s, including Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. That really got me going,” he said.
A few months later, King opened a small shop in a mall on Durant Street. He went to the Daily Cal and told them about his store. A story about it appeared on the front page. On his opening day, people were lining up outside. KRON sent a reporter over. The station ran stories about him for three days running. The business took off, and he’s been expanding ever since. He moved to his current location on Fulton Street in 1996 and opened an online store the next year. They’re currently open by appointment only.
“Before COVID, we were open all the time, trying to give people what they want,” King said. “I didn’t get into this for the money, but for the magic. When I first started, a guy came in and asked if I bought baseball cards. He said he was gonna throw them away. I paid him 200 bucks for the box and found some cards from the ’30s. A couple of weeks went by. Someone came in looking for those very cards. That kind of thing happens all the time.
“We have a deep reserve of baseball cards going as far back as the 1880s, but my sweet spot is stuff from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I don’t really pursue sports items from this century, but sometimes it comes my way. I collect pennants, signed baseballs and footballs; if it’s old and sports-related, we probably have something,” he continued.
King has a massive inventory of comic books from the 1950s and up, as well as one of the largest selections of underground comix, but his specialty is the psychedelic posters of the 1960s.
“I have one of the largest rock poster collections in the world. I even collect the original hand-drawn art that they were created from. When punk hit in the ’70s, there was an explosion of flyers for the new bands,” he said. “I have hundreds of flyers from the Mabuhay Gardens and other venues, but I was more interested in the art than the music. One standout from that era is the posters for Psycotic Pineapple, done by John Seabury. Today, there’s a whole other wave of modern poster artists. It’s been a big scene since the early 2000s, and it’s getting bigger all the time.”
King said the best way to get a feel for the evolution of the art is to visit his gallery or check out his web page at dking-gallery.com.